Welcome. Let's talk Rockets.
State of the Rockets: Danuel House's peculiar play, Russell Westbrook's efficiency, James Harden's defense and more
Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):
As of last week:
Offensive RTG: 113.8 (3rd)
Defensive RTG: 108.7 (15th)
Net RTG: +5.1 (6th)
As of this week:
Offensive RTG: 113.3 (4th)
Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)
Net RTG: +3.9 (9th)
1. Rockets lose three games in a row
It may seem too obvious to put this here, but it's certainly the biggest development of the week. The Rockets are in a rough spot, and that's something you'll hear from the players and coaches. Games have been lost, team meetings have been had, and things haven't turned around quite yet. It's possible that this is just a tough spot and it'll eventually turn around for Houston (P.J. Tucker certainly thinks so), but an outside observer will tell you this looks like a spiraling basketball team and it would be totally inbounds to have that opinion.
Over the past three games, the Rockets have a -11.5 point differential per 100 possessions (24th in the league in that span). Houston's loss Saturday night was particularly bad because not only were the Lakers without Anthony Davis, but going into it, the team had already lost three out of their previous four games. It was a must-win in every sense of the phrase.
2. Austin Rivers sprains right thumb
The extent of the damage to River's right thumb is still unknown, but considering the rail-thin nature of this roster, this is a big deal. Mike D'Antoni said that Rivers suffered this injury against Memphis and talked about possible ligament damage. With Rivers out, the Rockets only have Eric Gordon as a good option to defend ball handlers.
3. Danuel House continues his slump
This storyline is completely bizarre. How does one go from a pretty good starter to a below average NBA rotation player? House had become a reliable shooter and somewhat capable defender for houston until the calendar flipped. Ever since December 29th (22 points against New Orleans), House has only had one double-digit game in which he scored 10 points on 3 of 9 shooting from the field. While it's true that Ben McLemore has House in the rotation, House has proven in the past that he can perform well off the bench. Until there is word about a possible injury, we must assume that his is just a very bad slump for House.
4. Isaiah Hartenstein falls out of the rotation
Up until this week, it looked like Isaiah Hartenstein was finally going to get a fair crack at the backup center spot. Everything seemed to crescendo on January 11th against the Timberwolves where Hartenstein had an impressive stat-line of 17 points, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 steals, and 1 assist on 8 of 9 shooting from the field. Ever since that night, he's played a grand total of five minutes. It's hard to justify this considering it really looked like Hartenstein had proved his worth as a solid backup option to Clint Capela, but Mike D'Antoni's instinct has been to go small with P.J. Tucker at backup center or even give Tyson Chandler minutes in the case of the Lakers game.
You give a hall of famer like Mike D'Antoni the benefit of the doubt of 99.9% of things relating to the roster he's coaching, but it's only natural to question his judgement when it relates to Hartenstein.
Week of games in review:
When you lose three games in a row, there's really not much to say other than "the team has been bad". The fact that two of these losses have come against below .500 teams is truly what makes it worse.
Questions for the coming week:
1. Has Russell Westbrook turned a corner on his efficiency?
Lost in the shuffle of how bad the Rockets have been is how well Russell Westbrook has been playing as of late. Over his last four games, Westbrook has logged at least 30 points and 5 assists on at least 54.7% true shooting. Westbrook's regular season efficiency numbers have ticked up a little from below 50% true shooting to 51.4% at the moment. For his career, Westbrook is shooting 52.8% true shooting and it'll be interesting if he can get back to that mark.
All season, Westbrook's production and efficiency has been been compared to that of Chris Paul's. And while that is perfectly logical and fair to do considering this was a straight one for one player swap with picks attached to Paul, that isn't the central question for Houston this season. The relevant question isn't "Is Chris Paul playing better than Russell Westbrook in 2019-20?", it's "Is Russell Westbrook good enough to be the second best player on a title contender in 2019-20?" All the other stuff are just macro-evaluations of the trade and evaluating Houston's future prospects. That stuff is important, but it's not the most important for the Rockets this season.
It'll be interesting if Westbrook's percentages drop, stabilize, or even rise up from these current percentages.
2. Will James Harden start caring about his effort on defense again?
It seems fans have shifted all their ire towards head coach Mike D'Antoni for not playing Isaiah Hartenstein enough or forcing Houston's hand with forward Gary Clark's waiver. However, someone who has not received enough blame from fans for his effort or lack thereof is James Harden. Harden's effort on both ends of the floor fell off of a plateau this week. In the game against Portland, Harden attempted less field goals than four other Rockets players. It completely flew under the radar how nonchalant Harden was in that game. Granted, he was being trapped for some of it, but Harden was also passive when he did get single coverage opportunities and chose not to take advantage of them.
Before the past two weeks, Harden's defense was actually fairly commendable for the Rockets. It looked like the game against Miami unlocked something in him that forced him to care on all possessions defensively. These past two weeks, however, Harden's been a statue who swipes at the ball when somebody attacks him off the dribble. C.J. McCollum completely torched him off the dribble and Lakers players did the same the next night on back cuts. Harden resorted to poking at the ball when players drove past him and it hurt the Rockets as bad as anything. On the season, the Rockets are 6.0 points per 100 possessions worse when Harden is on the floor (second to Westbrook's -6.8 points per 100 possessions).
If the Rockets continue to start Ben McLemore alongside Harden and Westbrook, at least one of those two has to become above average defensively for Houston to crack the top ten defenses in the NBA.
3. Is P.J. Tucker's shoulder going to be okay?
P.J. Tucker suffered a right shoulder stinger against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 11th after receiving a pretty hard screen from Gorgui Dieng and seemed to re-aggravate it after another hard screen, this time from veteran center Dwight Howard. Tucker has not shot the three-ball well since December 21st and an injury to his shooting shoulder can't help his prospects of getting back on track.
4. Can the Rockets win their next two home games?
If the Lakers game was a 'must-win', the next two home games against the Thunder and Nuggets are what you may call a 'super-must-win' game. If you lose both of these games, it's possible the bottom falls out from underneath and the team never recovers.
"It does put a premium on these next two games," agreed Mike D'Antoni at Sunday's practice. "But it [also] puts a premium on 'Lets get it right'. The results will take care of themselves."
The Rockets insist that internally they are calm and know how to come out of this rut because of the experience on the roster.
"We know what we need to do," said Eric Gordon. "We're an older, veteran team - we know exactly what's going, what's happening. Like I said before, it's the consistency from quarter to quarter in games."